News / Africa

Somalia’s Insurgents Turn Ivory into Big Export Business

A Kenya Wildlife Service officer tests the weight of ivory tusks discovered at the Port of Mombasa in July 9, 2013.
A Kenya Wildlife Service officer tests the weight of ivory tusks discovered at the Port of Mombasa in July 9, 2013.
William Eagle
The African Union’s increased military presence in Somalia has recently succeeded in as many as a dozen communities once held by al-Shabab, the al-Qaida affiliate seeking to create an Islamist state in the Horn of Africa.  
Al-Shabab’s years-long Somalia insurgency has been funded by various enterprises, including massive exports of charcoal to the Middle East. But in 2010, Andrea Crosta of the non-profit Elephant Action League began hearing rumors of al-Shabab’s well-organized ivory purchase and export operation. Two years later, Crosta and an Israeli colleague, Nir Kaldron, hired a translator and began a year-long inquiry centered in Nairobi.
“We started these investigations mostly under cover,” says Crosta. “We met dozens and dozens of people, poachers, small traffickers, big traffickers, even ex-warlords, mostly connected to Somali society both in Kenya and Somalia. And slowly we built this very worrying puzzle. And we understood that al-Shabab rightfully started a great opportunity.”
Crosta and Kaldron slowly gained the confidence of many involved in an illicit trade that extends throughout the region. They secretly recorded conversations about al-Shabab’s trafficking operations. The investigations revealed the carefully defined business perspective of an organization that has waged war against western and democratic influences in the Horn of Africa.
Rebels discover a good business opportunity
“They understood, of course, that the price was rising and rising in Asia and the demand was, well, so there was a great business opportunity,” says Crosta. “And they started to act as buyers, basically.
Andrea Crosta describes al-Shabab's ivory commerce, and more
Andrea Crosta describes al-Shabab's ivory commerce, and morei
|| 0:00:00
“Unlike other armed groups and terrorist groups in Africa involved with poaching, al-Shabab does not really poach the elephant, kill the elephant. They act as buyers, as very good buyers.
“Slowly, we understood there were about one to three tons of ivory getting onto Somali through al-Shabab every month, so we are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits every month.”
  • Somalia's Islamist jihadists emerged as merchants in the illegal trade of elephant ivory from the Horn of Africa, according to undercover investigators. Surrounded by well-armed bodyguards for a 2008 press conference, spokesman Sheik Muktar Robow Abu Mansur vowed increased attacks against a struggling goverment force and its foreign supporters.
  • A Kenya Wildlife Service officer tests the weight of an elephant tusk at a display of more than 140 confiscated pieces of ivory outside the Port of Mombasa's police station on July 9, 2013. Shabab continues to smuggle large quantities of ivory by dhow to larger vessels anchored off Kenya's and Somalia's coasts.
  • Al-Shabaab fighters brandish surface-to-air missiles and other weaponry during an Octoer, 2010 miliary exercise in Mogadishu. In addition to illicit ivory sales, Shabab has been financing their war against the western-backed government with charcoal exports to the Gulf Arab states with sales that have been banned by the United Nations.
  • Kenya security stand guard over Tang Yong Jian, a Chinese national who pleaded guilty in the dock of the Makadara Law courts in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, January 28, 2014. Tang, 40, was arrested at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport in Nairobi trying to smuggle 3.4 kilograms of raw ivory to Giuangzhou, China. His punishment was $233,000 or seven years in prison.
  • Much of Shabab's ivory trades is centered in Kenya. In 2102 the World Wildlife Fund invited religious leaders of many faiths in Kenya to gathered at the site of a previous government burning of elephant tusks to pray for an end to the slaughter.

As the African Union military mission to drive the militants out of Somalia gains momentum, they shut down the insurgency’s access to major ports. But al-Shabab has demonstrated an ability to adapt. They buy ivory and rhino horns from Kenya and neighboring central African countries. They ship the tusks from variety of ports by skiff to Iranian, Korean and Chinese ships anchored in the Indian Ocean. Some skiffs even originate, Crosta says, in ports AU-controlled areas on the coast and even in Kenya.
“They just had to readjust themselves logistically because they still control a large part of the Somali countryside and the traffic is still going on. They just use different ports and exit points.”
Their trafficking chain many helping hands
“Do not forget,” Crosta says, “they also have a lot of power also in Kenya and it is connected to a lot of businessmen and traffickers who actually provide funds for al-Shabab. So, even ivory collected in Kenya and then leaving Kenya from the Mombasa port, for example, might be connected to al-Shabab.”
The league’s report was published in spring of 2013, but didn’t receive much attention until after the devastating al-Shabab attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi last year that took the lives of more than 60 civilians.
More recently, Crosta founded a whistle-glower organization to encourage improved intelligence-gathering on poaching in many countries. However, Crosta says he has also gained a wider perspective on problems created by poaching and efforts to contain it.
“Everybody is talking, of course, about elephants,” Crosta says. “You might talk about rangers dying sometimes, but actually the human toll is much, much wider. It is about rangers, it’s about thousands of poachers losing their lives every year, leaving behind very large families with orphans and widows. And now you also have armed gangs and terrorist groups and the human toll of the ivory trade.”
Too many victims to count
Crosta is concerned also about the larger economic and political tendencies that perpetuate poaching and the consequences for the communities that surround Africa’s poorly protected game reserves. The puzzle Crosta talks about now is more complex than identifying who is killing Africa’s elephants. While poachers may be viewed as predators, Crosta asks that the public look more closely at the Africans who kill these animals.
The Elephant Action League wants to call attention to the widespread human devastation.
“You have armed gangs of very dangerous person but you and you have poor local people,” he says. “One elephant with nice pair of tusks represents a few years of salary for someone who has no salary and maybe 10 people waiting at home for him.  So you can imagine the temptation.
“It is also about them. It is about widows, it’s about orphans, it’s about children who become child soldiers, about officers and judges getting bribed. It’s about the weapon that is bought to kill an elephant and is later used to rob a bank. It’s about a lot.”
Tanzania’s rangers stray from their target
In Tanzania, where poachers have killed large numbers of elephants, an all-out anti-poaching crackdown called Operation Terminate last year resulted in a sharp reduction in elephant kills: only two elephants died. But the wildlife success led to monumental political failures and the kind of lawlessness and human

But the moral cost was high as security units operating under a shoot-to-kill policy were accused of killings, torture and rape during the anti-poaching campaign. A parliamentary inquiry revealed the murder of 13 civilians, arrests of over 1,000 people and other abuses by members of the operation, which included soldiers, policemen, game rangers and forestry officers.
President Jakaya Kikwete sacked four top ministers and asked for foreign governments’ guidance on a better way to save the wildlife they depend on for much-needed tourism revenues.

You May Like

Nearly Every Job in America Mapped in Detail

A nifty map pinpoints practically every job in the United States, revealing the economic character of America’s metropolitan areas, which also helps to inform the local culture

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs